The U.S. president enraged human rights activists, pro-democracy activists, liberals, Buddhists and supporters of independence for Tibet, as well as a lot of environmentalists, by agreeing to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing.
In fact, Bush had an excellent reason, in terms of U.S. national interest, realpolitik, and the genuinely moral cause of maintaining the fiscal stability of the U.S. government, in going. China's State Bank alone currently holds 30 percent of all U.S. Treasury bonds in circulation: If it were to dump them on the open market, the value of the dollar and the fiscal credibility of the U.S. government would vanish overnight and 300 million Americans would be plunged immediately into an economic crisis worse and more difficult to solve than the Great Depression.
True believers in unlimited and unregulated free market forces scoff at this scenario, forgetting the old biblical proverb that the borrower is always servant to the lender. That fact is borne out throughout modern history, when U.S. global prosperity and superiority for generations were based on being to dictate favorable terms of trade to nations that were deeply in debt to American private and public financial institutions. That, however, is the very same advantage that China and Japan both have now enjoyed for many years over the United States.
Bush, therefore, had no sane choice but to try to keep relations cordial, if not warm, with the People's Republic of China. But in his conducting of the Olympic issue, he failed to do even that.
On the one hand, the U.S. president has committed himself to attend the opening ceremony in Beijing, handing a useful issue to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois to use against both Bush and his would-be Republican successor, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
But on the other hand, Bush infuriated Chinese President Hu Jintao and his colleagues anyway. Last week, the president hosted five Chinese dissidents at the White House, provoking a fierce protest from Beijing.
Bush appears to have taken this action to appease the powerful U.S. human rights lobby, which enjoys the strong support of his own Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky.
But instead, he has only succeeded in simultaneously infuriating both the Chinese government and its most aggressive critics. He also locked himself into a Beijing visit that is fraught with embarrassment.
As Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in an e-mail statement published Tuesday by The Washington Post, if popular protests are attempted in China, particularly in Beijing, during the Games, and are crushed, " … President Bush will look awful if he ignores the repression around him and simply applauds the athletes."
There were many, better options Bush could have chosen. He could have decided to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics and quietly explained to the American public why, in terms of the U.S. national interest and maintaining world peace, he thought it was the right thing to do.
Or he could have chosen not to attend and not invited any human rights activists or Chinese dissidents to the White House either. That would have gone down far better in Beijing than choosing to attend after twisting the Dragon's tail by hosting critics of the regime in the White House. But it also would have quietly made the point that Bush chose not to dignify the opening ceremony of the Games, and by implication the policies of the Chinese government, by attending the event.
Instead, the president chose to try to satisfy two utterly contradictory and mutually hostile forces at the same time, and only managed to enrage both of them. That kind of policymaking used to be called unsuccessful appeasement.